The Devil's Nightmare

Color, 1987, 83 mins. 59 secs.
Directed by Richard Friedman
Starring Andrew Stevens, Mary Page Keller, David Ramsey, Josh Segal, Bill Hindman, Jackie Davis
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Shuffled Scared Stiffoff to VHS in the late '80s by Republic Scared Stiffafter a very tiny theatrical run, this quirky supernatural shocker from first-time feature director Richard Friedman (who went on to Doom Asylum and Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge) is the kind of horror film that sneaks up on you with an odd but fairly sedate first hour before going completely nuts in the final stretch. As horror fans know, the genre was going through a strange period of decline around this time that would really become obvious in the early '90s, but that also meant filmmakers were starting to take crazier risks that could at least be seen by a home video audience if the result was too out there for the big screen (a la Demon Wind or Friedman's next two films).

The opening prologue establishes the cursed nature of the Masterson plantation, a particularly nasty slave trading center in someplace called Charlesburg. it's so bad that a supernatural totem aid is summoned in 1857 on the Ivory Coast from voodoo practitioners, after which we jump forward to the "present day" of 1987. Therapist David Young (Stevens) buys the property to become the new home for himself, his L.A. pop singer girlfriend Kate (TV regular Keller), and her son, Jason (Segal), and it isn't long before they discover a couple of bodies from the Masterson's past stashed away in the attic. Scared StiffSoon David is acting weird and possessed, Kate thinks she's losing her mind, Jason's toys start acting of their own accord, and the handyman ends up hanging from a rope with no one noticing for a surreal amount of time. That's just the beginning though as we head to the big finale complete with pulsating brains, dry ice galore, Scared Stiffflickering candles, a big latex monster, and other ooga booga insanity you'll never believe.

It's actually difficult to believe at times that there wasn't some Italian money sunk into this one since it frequently has a vibe similar to the irrational, adorable tone of older films like Beyond the Door and The Visitor right down to the bizarre use of an Apple IIc as a magic conduit that blasts projections in the middle of the room. There's even a completely gratuitous lethal car crash that takes out a USA Today stand before turning into a huge cinematic fireball for good measure, not to mention a kitschy music video shoot and some time-tripping surrealism reminiscent of House by the Cemetery. The pacing's all over the place and it certainly isn't one to spring on newbie horror fans, but if you're looking for something wild and way off the beaten path, this one really delivers.

Arrow Vdieo's track record of throwing surprising curve-balls into its releases continues with this one, which hasn't been on too many people's radars for many years. The fresh 2K scan from "original film elements" looks excellent throughout and up to the label's usual standards, with the dark corridor scenes and latex bursting effects in particular looking a lot more impressive now than before. The LPCM English 2.0 stereo mix is a lot of fun with the pounding electronic score and aggressive sound effects getting some nice separation, and English SDH subtitles are provided. A new audio commentary with Friedman and producer Scared StiffDan Bacaner in conversation with Robert Ehlinger is loaded with trivia about the film from the early period sequences (shot at "the only colonial mansion in Florida") through the casting process (including recruiting Keller from soap opera Scared Stiffwork at the last minute) and the choices they would have rethought had they done it all over again. Also included is an extensive new featurette, "Mansion of the Doomed: The Making of Scared Stiff" (33m48s), with Friedman, Bacaner, Ehlinger, Stevens, Segal, special effects supervisor Tyler Smith, and special effects assistants Jerry Macaluso and Barry Anderson covering the practical effects, the film's better fortunes overseas, the origins in a script called Ghost Diary by none other than Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost, the creation of the haunted toy vehicle sand pile, and tons more. A separate interview with composer Billy Barber (6m33s) is also worth checking out as he explains how he planned out the synthesizer score in just the right workspace with his brother and came up with that song, which pretty much justifies the whole film itself. An image gallery (6 mins.) with appropriate musical accompaniment features some great production shots and international VHS art, and the very eventful theatrical trailer is also included. The first pressing comes with an insert booklet featuring liner notes by James Oliver, and a limited edition slipcase with Graham Humphreys artwork is available from Diabolik.

Reviewed on April 25, 2019